Researching prions is not without risk

The man was working in meNational Agricultural, Food and Environmental Research Institute (INRAE). It is being investigated whether he contracted the disease while on the job, but if it turns out he did, it would be the second case that the lab technician has become incurable while searching for prions.

Prions are proteins that fall into the wrong fold. To make proteins, our bodies link amino acids together in chains based on information from DNA. These chains are folded into 3D functional proteins. Prion codes for a protein that we find primarily in the brain. If the natural protein When folded incorrectly, a prion protein is formed. This prion also causes normal proteins to abnormally bend, causing a chain reaction to occur. The proliferation of abnormally folded proteins affects the nervous system and causes neurological disorders. Prion proteins in humans lead to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (Toil), in cows until mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy).

In the early 1990s, an epidemic of mad cow disease spread among cattle in Great Britain, due to the use of animal meal contaminated with prions. Mad cow disease, mad cow disease, can cause what is called variant CJD in humans. Previously confirmed infections in France suffered from this variant. The woman in question, also a lab technician at INRAE, died of CJD last year at the age of 33, ten years after she pricked her finger while experimenting with prions.

Be careful with your mind

Researching prions carries risks, according to Professor Patrick Kras, a neurologist at the Born-Bunge Institute, the University of Antwerp’s Neuroscience Laboratory. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is transmissible because the prion protein affects the formation of other proteins. The discontinuous form is less transmissible than the variant associated with BSE. But just to clarify, there is no risk of transmission of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in normal contacts. There is no risk in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease care.

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The laboratory of the University Hospital of Antwerp is one of the few laboratories in which autopsies are performed on patients with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Krass explains that strict regulations apply to the safe handling of these brain samples. Brain tissue contains the highest concentration of transmissible substances, so we are very careful about that. In concrete terms, this means, for example, that all materials used in anatomy are for individual use as closely as possible. If this is not possible, the material is disinfected, for example with sodium hydroxide. We are autoclaves, which means they are sterilized under pressure.

These security measures provide adequate protection, according to Cras. “Working with human subjects always involves risk. Compared to, for example, COVID, HIV or other infectious agents, the risk associated with working with prions is relatively limited. But we are fully aware of the risks and act accordingly in our laboratories.

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